No Reader Left Behind: eBook Extremes

NPR aired a story last year about a boarding school in Massachusetts that decided to rebuild its library as a fully digital environment. That is, Cushing Academy no longer has any physical books. The stacks are gone, and students instead have access to millions of digital books via the school’s circulating Kindles. Although many institutions, including school and public libraries, have begun to adopt eBooks as a component of their collections, Cushing Academy is one of the most extreme examples of a library literally doing away with their stacks.

The stated mission of the American Library Association (ALA) is “To provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” The introduction of eBooks to libraries may be interpreted as an “enhancement,” and, indeed, few librarians reject the notion that eBooks provide benefits to many collections by supplementing the capacities of print materials. However, the story of Cushing Academy highlights some of the complexities of taking new technologies to the extreme.

Camila Alire, past President of the ALA, said of Cushing Academy’s drastic renovation, “Students learn differently, and some students will take to digital resources and information technology like a duck takes to water…And then there are other students who learn by turning the pages, by handling the materials” (Antolini, 2009). Alire makes an important point: although part of the library’s responsibility is to stay abreast of new technologies, libraries also function to meet the learning and information needs of diverse users. If an organization gets rid of an entire range of materials in favor of another, it runs the risk of ignoring the needs of a faction of the user population.

In LIS programs we like to turn to S.R. Ranganathan to simplify the general mission of libraries because his “Five Laws of Library Science” are simple yet powerful. “Every reader his book” may be the one that relates most explicitly to the discussion about eBooks (Gorman, 1998, p. 21). A component of the mission of all information organizations is to connect every user with the best information for him or her. For some users, an eBook may be the best format, while others may want to view information via microfiche. In any case, it is the responsibility of the information organization to meet each user’s individual needs. This is not to say that every information package must be available in every possible format, but what we sometimes lose sight of is the fact that different users learn in different ways. This is what Camile Alire speaks to in her comments about Cushing Academy.

In general, it is an interesting time to be an information professional and try to navigate the murky waters of new technologies. It’s important for us to remain aligned with the ALA’s mission of enhancement and improvement, and it is of course vital that libraries of all kinds strive to remain relevant. However, it’s also important that we look critically at our options and keep all users in mind when we acquire new technologies.

Sources:

Antolini, Tina. (November 9, 2009.) Digital school library leaves book stacks behind. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120097876.

Gorman, Michael. (1998.)  The five laws of library science: then and now. School Library Journal, 44:7, p. 20-3.

–Post by Allie B.

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6 Responses to No Reader Left Behind: eBook Extremes

  1. I remember reading about Cushing Academy last year. I think you raise some really good points here. One of my jobs is working at a Circulation desk. It’s a common occurrence for us to get patrons looking specifically for either electronic or print copies of books, articles, and other resources. This brings to mind one specific example of a patron who had no abilities to access electronic materials from home. The patron was interested in a specific book that was only available in electronic format through not only our library, but our entire library consortium. The only way for this patron to access the book was to come to the library every time they wanted to read. Obviously, that’s impractical. Others among our patrons have asked for specific formats because they’re easier to read, easier to learn from, or allow different interactions.

    One other point I thought of when I first heard this story was that there’s no guarantee the school’s new e-readers will be a perpetual technology. How often will they have to upgrade and at what cost? Will all the titles they need be available through a single e-book provider or will they have to get multiple types of readers to access more materials?

  2. This is the first time of heard of the Cushing Academy and let me tell you, I cringed. I am one of those people, who need to hold a book to understand its content. Camila Alire’s remarks and our mantra “every book its reader” encapsulate my stance perfectly. As librarians/archivists, we must know our patrons needs and match technology to those needs. We must not pursue new technologies simply because they are in fashion or cutting-edge. They must serve our patrons. Ebooks do have their place but to get rid of collections of physical books seems irresponsible at best.

    I have to admit that I also cringed when I read the Denver Post’s article this weekend about Penrose’s new foray. http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16463538.
    What if the library commons movement is short lived or ill conceived?

    K.Yockey

  3. What first popped into my mind what also the idea of when and where ebooks can be read. If they can only be accessed at the library then I supposed things like leisure reading and home research are out. What are the copyright implications of this technology? Obviously numerous copies of books cannot be printed out or transferred to personal devices. I assume this system works much like some of the Penrose electronic material that is not copiable and available only to students (members of the library so to speak).

    I also wonder about the medical implications of reading on back-lit screens all the time. Though e-readers claim to have no damaging effects, I cannot believe that anything backlit is as safe as an opaque page. It’s bad enough that people are expected to stare at computer screens for hours on end for both work and school purposes.

    -L. Brothers

  4. I remember someone telling me about this when I told them I was going to study LIS. I felt then, as I feel now, that this is an extreme case. How many school libraries can afford to do away with all of their print materials and supply each student with a kindle? Not many. However, technology is growing and improving so swiftly that we can’t disregard that our profession is going to look completely different in the not too distant future. But that is OK. We are still going to be here to help people navigate the complicated information environment. We can’t fight technology, it is going to change our society and our profession just as it has been doing so over the last twenty years. But I think technology needs us, that somehow we are going to fit in to this high-tech world, we just have to be willing and fearless.

  5. I agree with the rest of the informationettes in that when I heard this story a year ago, I was absolutely appalled. I have always been an advocate of the book. The feel, the smell, the texture of the pages and cover, knowing how long the book is just by looking at it…a Kindle will never be able to replace the attributes of a good ole fashioned book. I don’t know if it is just because we are librarians that we have this affinity to books in their physical format, but I just can’t imagine a world without them. But I also agree that we have to remain up-to-date on all of the new and emerging technologies in order to properly perform our jobs and assist our customers in finding the information they need in whatever format it may be.
    JW

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